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To be honest, we really wanted to dislike Company of Heroes 2. As is tradition whenever we have a new strategy game, we immediately fired up the game’s skirmish mode and cracked open a delicious can of soda to accompany (what we assumed would be) a short march to victory.
When in doubt, park your zerglings—er, troops—behind concrete and let them watch you mortar the surrounding area into oblivion.
Although we weren’t playing as the Germans in this match, it sure felt that way. Specifically, German soldiers at the turn of the 1940s, whose bravado-filled failure march into Russia as part of Operation Barbarossa so greatly opened up the Eastern Front that the Russians would be a-knockin’ on Berlin’s door—Hell March–style—within four short years.
In other words, Germany got its ass kicked, and so did we. And thus began our descent into the steep learning curve that is Relic Entertainment’s Company of Heroes 2. A zerg rush, this game is not—at least, not in its multiplayer matchups. In its single-player campaign, the game comes just shy of throwing medals at you for sending countless waves of cheap soldiers to their untimely death—an odd mechanic, given the “unit veterancy” feature that’s designed to encourage soldier longevity.
The game’s single-player campaign offers up a mix of its dullest and most interesting moments. A design imbalance permeates its 14 campaign missions worse than a Russian winter on a poor conscript—which isn’t just a lame metaphor, it’s also a game mechanic.
As was the Russian style at the time, some missions task you with simple survival: Hold a position while the Germans send countless waves of pain your way. Move to a new position. Hold that. Move to a third position. Hold that. In these instances, you’ll find yourself focusing less on strategy, more on prayer (and ample use of the hotkey that tells your guys to heave-ho a grenade).
This can be fun, to an extent. Sometimes, it seems as if the game’s in-mission reprieves arrive the split-second before you Ctrl+Alt+Del your frustrations away. Other times, the “survival” element transforms into a rousing game of, “How long can I watch my monitor until I get bored?” The AI seems to get a real kick out of sending battalions right into sustained mortar and rocket fire for no obvious benefit.
Relic likes to occasionally grant you an extreme amount of firepower—World War II whoop-ass, as it were. We like carnage, but it almost seemed a little unfair to pepper German bases with Howitzers and BM-13 Katyusha rocket launchers that reach an ungodly distance across the map. We’d prefer a happy medium—decent, non-frustrating challenges that you can use creative tactics to overcome, but a bit lighter on the “weapons of mass destruction”–like add-ons that can imbalance the gritty fighting.
You’ll start skipping the ugly cutscenes faster than you can say “Russian winter.”
To put it another way, Company of Heroes 2 makes you feel like a god among RTS players at times; an inept newbie at others.
Relic does try to spice things up by peppering the campaign with uniqueness, like the mission that forces you to spread your forces around campfires and (warm?) bunkers, lest they freeze to death in the cold Russian winter (Relic calls this “ColdTech;” you can even sink a vehicle by destroying the icy river it’s sitting on.). There’s also the fun mission-turned-puzzle where your motley band of infantry has to take on a tank all by itself. Spoiler: The tank shrugs off your wussy little bullets; you do not shrug off the tank’s shells.
The game’s general storyline is every bit as hard to follow as it is pointless. We dislike the overall “flashback” motif enough as is. It gets downright annoying when you realize that your mission is set in a flashback within a flashback (with nary an Inception-like “bahhhummm” noise to keep you awake).
We’ll spend as much time praising the game’s story as Relic put into its cutscenes; which is to say, barely any. These are some of the uglier movies we’ve seen in a modern title, almost as bad as the not-so-infrequent “AUTOSAVE” box that often accompanies in-game events within the single-player campaign.
The raw mechanics of Company of Heroes 2 are mostly unchanged from the game’s predecessor: Capture points to gain a steady tick of resources, which you use to build various kinds of infantry and armored units. New to the game is an awesome line-of-site mechanism that prevents your soldiers from seeing anything that terrain blocks; unfortunately, it’s still a bit tough to move grouped units behind effective cover en masse.
You’ll be doing a lot of micromanaging if you want to maximize your army’s positioning, and you’ll want to hit your head into the desk when you see enemy infantry skillfully running right past the firing arc you just spent three minutes setting up for your machine gun squad. What we’d give for a unit upgrade that would allow automatic turning of the “BFG.”
Don’t take our frustration for displeasure; Company of Heroes 2 is a challenging strategy title, which almost adds to the game’s enjoyment once you begin to master troop manipulation, rock-paper-scissors unit matchups, and general war techniques. As is often the case with sequels, if you loved the now-7-year-old Company of Heroes, you’ll find much to appreciate within its follow-up.
As you unlock more upgrades within the game itself, you can better customize your commanders and special bonuses within the game’s engaging Theater of War mode and multiplayer matchups—both areas we found ourselves sinking more time into than the game’s single-player campaign. Achievement nuts will love the 362 different ways this game gives you to show your friends your Eisenhower cred (though we find that, and the “unlock” system, a tad excessive).
Cover is your friend until a not-so-friendly grenade comes a-bouncing in.
If that’s not enough boasting, you can also use Company of Heroes 2’s built-in support for Twitch.tv-based streaming to show your friends that you’re Patton incarnate. All you have to do is type in your user name and password; the game takes care of the details (which you can tweak, if you prefer), and flicking your stream on and off is as easy as hitting a button on the top of your screen.
The single-player’s no Starcraft II, and the tricky multiplayer is likely to frustrate newcomers and strategy fans at first, but there’s a lot of gritty enjoyment to be had in Company of Heroes 2. Don’t give up on this title if it feels tough; you’ll miss out on some engaging gameplay. That, and this game will shoot you in the head if you try to run away.
$60, www.companyofheroes.com ESRB: M
Gritty, realistic visuals; thought-provoking gameplay; voluminous single-player missions; an achievement-junkie’s dream.
Trite single-payer campaign; poor storyline; wide-ranging disparity in mission difficulties; managing multiple fighting fronts can feel overwhelming.